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The secrets behind on-field communication in NWSL title game

Becky Sauerbrunn is the anchor of Portland’s backline and lines of communication. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The way players on a soccer team are able to anticipate each other’s movements at times can seem like a melding of minds. In other instances, the labor of communication is obvious, as goalkeepers yell out to their backline during clearances and midfield leaders guide their teammates forward.

The Portland Thorns and the Kansas City Current have achieved a combination of both, with verbal and non-verbal communication techniques carrying them all the way to the 2022 NWSL Championship in Washington, D.C. on Saturday.

While both teams communicate at a high level, they differ in their approach. A number of Current players, for example, prefer intuitive movements that rely on team principles and non-verbal connections.

“As much as we try to communicate, sometimes having no answer is an answer enough,” defender Kristen Edmonds says.

Portland players like to problem-solve using check-ins during breaks in the game and clear commands in the heat of the moment. With each tactic, they give their teammates a full picture of what they are seeing on the field.

“The most important communication is the one that’s going to create the most damage,” Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg says. “So if it seems like something’s going to happen, and it’s going to create big shockwaves, that needs to be the number one priority.”

While each team’s collective approach is not always the same, positionally things line up. There’s an inherent relationship between a player’s ability to see the whole field and responsibility to communicate, which means the hierarchy begins with the goalkeepers.

“Whether we need to make a tactical change, or I’m just seeing maybe a passing lane that’s been open a few times in a row, I try to take chances [to speak] when the game resets,” Thorns keeper Bella Bixby says.

Along the defense, Portland staggers its line of connectivity, with wide players speaking more to the wingers and center-backs communicating with the defensive midfielders. “My communication style is a lot of pointing,” Thorns defender Becky Sauerbrunn says, and center-back partner Kelli Hubly agrees: “When we all get quiet, then that’s when stuff is probably not going great.”

For Kansas City, body language along the backline is everything. “Non-verbal communication has been a big piece for us throughout the year in season,” Current keeper AD Franch says. “Your demeanor, the way in which you approach things, your movement on the ball, off the ball — those are all different types of communication.”

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Kansas City's AD Franch and Portland's Bella Bixby are vocal throughout games as the last line of defense. (Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In the midfield, the ability to size up a full-team defense is paramount when you’re trying to force your opponent into turnovers. Kansas City midfielder Lo’eau Labonta quips that her communication style is “loud,” but specifically notes that she tries to help with pressing triggers, letting players in front of her know that she’s got them covered when they push forward.

“I need to hear voices, especially being in the middle of the park in a stadium that’s filled with 20,000 people,” teammate Desiree Scott says. “I need to hear the people around me to guide me.”

In the attack, most players pride themselves on being good listeners. With the breakneck speed of NWSL play, you often just have to trust what you hear from the players behind you. “As a center forward, you really don’t see a lot,” Thorns striker Sophia Smith says. “You check your shoulder, but you can only see so much.”

Forwards gesture whether or not they want the ball at their feet, but more often than not, a perfectly timed run hinges on the ability to read tendencies. To receive the ball, attackers have to turn back and watch play develop behind them, which can leave them vulnerable to challenges or turnovers.

“Obviously, we don’t have eyes in the back of our head, so it’s hard to know what’s going on around you at all times,” Current forward Elyse Bennett says. “So having people in the midfield behind me to kind of communicate where I can press or where I can put off angles is huge, because it saves me from looking behind myself all the time.”

Outside the lines, the managers try to make sure that their instruction isn’t heavy-handed. Thorns coach Rhian Wilkinson and Current coach Matt Potter each singled out one of the main barriers to communicating: crowd noise. Managers can try to project, but as attendance throughout the league rises, they have to pick their moments, including when to call players over to the sidelines for in-game instruction.

“Something maybe I wasn’t ready for as a female coach was — no one ever talked about it to me — it was how you strain your voice,” Wilkinson says, calling her attempts to shout from the coaches box “useless” as her voice disappears every game. “If they don’t want to come to the bench because of whatever reason, I trust their leadership to take care of it.”

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Current coach Matt Potter trusts his players to problem-solve when he can't pull them over during games. (Amy Kontras/USA TODAY Sports)

Potter focuses on breaks in play and halftime, and when the noise gets too overwhelming, he relies on his team to problem-solve on their own. “We trust our players, and we try to give them as much autonomy to be the decision-makers as they possibly can,” he says.

Across the board, players agree that encouragement is as equally valuable as commands, especially as the clock winds down.

“If someone needs to press, I want to tell them that I’m with them so that they can go fully,” Hubly says. “Because when you hear someone behind you going, ‘Go, go, I’m with you,’ you’re going to be like, ‘OK, cool. I’m going to go as hard as I can.’”

“I’m big on energy,” adds Scott. “And I think that kind of encouragement really helps you continue on, especially when the momentum of the game can change.”

As both teams focus intently on their own processes, don’t expect much crosstalk on Saturday. Players say they don’t usually notice chatter from their opponent, outside of formational changes and negative emotions.

“I don’t hear [opponents],” Klingenberg says, “unless they’re being complete assholes to each other.”

“I only hear if they’re being negative towards each other,” Kansas City wingback Hailie Mace says. “I think that kind of lights a fire and I’m like, ‘Let’s go. We got into their heads.’”

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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